I was still a student in the Netherlands when I watched a TED Talk that changed my career–and it was about washing machines. In it, the Swedish statistician Hans Rosling argues that the washing machine was one of the most revolutionary technological inventions of the modern age, having freed millions of homebound women from hours of manual labor. I was inspired–and had a hunch I could improve on the appliance’s social impact even further.
So a month before graduating with a degree in business administration, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer to launch my startup, a washing device that saves even more time than conventional washing machines and runs on zero energy. I packed my bags and moved to Ahmedabad, a city in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Building A New Network From Scratch
Launching a new business is hard–everyone knows that. To make it through the tough times, most founders develop support networks to fall back on and seek advice from. They might call family friends for accounting help, have sit-downs with business mentors, or brainstorm solutions with other entrepreneurs over a few drinks. But when I packed my bags and moved abroad, I surrendered all those crucial, informal support structures.
I knew that was a risky move. In one survey, 78% of founders told The Economist Intelligence Unit that informal networking “will be important or is important to their business” already. But when I arrived in India, I didn’t know anyone. I had to start from scratch and build my network from the ground up.
So I submerged myself in the day-to-day affairs in the city, like drinking chai at roadside shops near universities. I cold-called local entrepreneurs and asked to meet to seek guidance from them, and went to networking events to become part of the local entrepreneurial community. My friends even gave me a local name, “Kanubhai,” which definitely helped to break the ice.
Many immigrants arrive in new countries, immediately join expat communities, and build networks with other foreigners. But for me, networking with the Indian community is what really helped my business to grow. I was able to get an “in” to local business deals, understand local customs better, and learn more about the Indian market. Best of all, I met my cofounder.
The funny thing is, networking in a new environment was actually more effective than networking in a more familiar one. I didn’t initially have friends to hang out with at these events in India, so unless I wanted to stand alone in a corner, I had to force myself to converse with people I didn’t know.
Not every young entrepreneur will find themselves in a new country and without a network, but it’s important for all founders to go outside their comfort zones and engage with the unknown. Immerse yourself in unfamiliar communities to learn more about your target market, show up at events alone to perfect your elevator pitch, and introduce yourself to people you’ve never met. It’s a mind-set you have to be willing to adopt, but it can really pay off.
Dealing With The Unfamiliar
As you get better at that, you’ll begin noticing that those seemingly strange rules abroad do have a purpose. After being in India for a few months, I decided to go for a swim at a local club. My first visit, I arrived too late for registration. The second time the on-duty officer wasn’t there. The third time I was finally able to register, and after answering a few formalities, the official in charge asked if I knew how to swim. “Why would I be here if I couldn’t?” I thought. But even after answering yes, I was asked to swim two laps to prove it.
In a foreign country, you constantly have to adapt to rules and regulations that might not make sense to you initially. But if you can stay flexible and self-aware, you’ll come to understand why certain rules are put in place.
Mind-set aside, that’s also just good practice for setting up a new business. Startups need to have their financial books in order, pay the required taxes, and keep all their ducks in a row, legally speaking. In my experience, day-long trips to the bank, standing in long lines at government offices, and struggling to understand official explanations of difficult processes in a second language will make any administrative tasks back home feel like a breeze.
Switching Up Your Own Habits
Living away from home comes with plenty of highs and lows. My limits were tested every day in India–the food, the weather, and the culture are entirely different. And the cultural change also affected the way I managed my nascent business. In the Netherlands everything is structured and carefully planned, but in India I had to adapt to a system that was entirely different–a more go-with-the-flow approach where I had to be ready for anything, anytime.
I also learned to get my head around the art of indirect communication. Back home, I was taught to ask why and to be direct about what I think. In India this comes off as extremely rude and can lead to uncomfortable situations. In fact, in most conversations, people just aim to keep the peace—and in a country of 1.3 billion people and some 780 languages, I quickly grasped the value in that. In my experience, business relationships are valued so highly that they take a longer time to form. I found that I needed to strike up a strong personal relationship first, before we could talk business–and sometimes that meant waiting three weeks just to get a quote from a vendor.
Every day, I had to adjust my own values and behaviors. Changing your habits is never easy, especially when the next day you have to do it all over again. While this was sometimes a frustrating experience, it was a fantastic way to learn about myself and better understand the things that motivate and challenge me.
Jetting off to India to launch my startup certainly came with a lot of obstacles, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The proof is in the stamps on my passport: I’m still here.